DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s pied-piper on restrictor-plate tracks, creates the question of who are the best plate drivers in Cup.
Many say Brad Keselowski, noting his five Talladega victories and one Daytona victory in his career, but it is not unanimous.
In the last three years Keselowski is tied with Penske teammate Joey Logano for most points wins at a restrictor-plate track with three each. The only other drivers with more than one plate win in the last three years are Earnhardt (2) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2). The only other drivers to win a restrictor-plate race in the last three years is Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch with one each.
Keselowski’s success has come from the strong Fords Team Penske has had, a veteran spotter in Joey Meier and the ability to control the pack while leading, darting back and forth between lanes to block.
“It would be kind of weird to put my own name out there, but I think Joey is really good and Denny Hamlin is really good,’’ Keselowski said. “I think my teammate, Ryan Blaney, is becoming really good. If I had to pick one more, probably Kevin Harvick.”
Harvick, though, sides with those who have done well lately.
“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad and Joey, and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,’’ Kevin Harvick said.
Kyle Busch views the top of the class this way:
“The last couple years, I look at Brad and Denny as being the top two guys,’’ Busch said. “I think the speed of Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”
What is it that Keselowski and Hamlin do so well?
“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,’’ Busch said. “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from, all that sort of stuff.’’
Hamlin sees a similarity with Keselowski in how they race on plate tracks.
“I think me and Brad have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how they do things,’’ Hamlin said. “I think there’s other things that make bold moves, and it looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race. And so I think there is a difference, and it just ‑‑ for whatever reason, our styles have morphed into kind of the same driver on these types of racetracks, and it’s really just ‑‑ for whatever reason, it’s made us successful.’’
2. AT WHAT PRICE WAS Alex Bowman’S POLE?
Kevin Harvick questioned the tactic by Alex Bowman in Thursday night’s first qualifying race.
Bowman, who won the pole for the Daytona 500, immediately went to the outside and fell to the back of the pack after the green flag waved. He spent most of race in the back and finished 14th.
“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today in my opinion,’’ Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice. Starting on the pole is great but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time in my opinion.’’
Crew chief Greg Ives defended the action.
“I saw those guys wreck and that’s something we weren’t going to have to do,’’ he told reporters after the race. “I’m already locked into the pole position, so there’s no sense being out there and having people get around you and get in a situation to get wrecked. You always want to get experience in the draft but … I didn’t think it was a benefit. We came down here with a plan and we’re going to stick with the plan. Right now it’s working out.’’
Bowman said this week that his car was “trimmed out’’ in qualifying, meaning that downforce had been taken out so the car would be faster. That’s great for single-car qualifying but teams were not allowed to change their cars before the qualifying races, so that meant that Bowman’s car likely would be unstable in traffic. To avoid the potential problems, Bowman went straight to the back.
In a race that saw a fourth of the 20 cars eliminated by accidents, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, Bowman survived and has his No. 1 starting spot intact. There’s still the chance to draft in practice if the team elects — remember how Chad Knaus and Johnson used to famously avoid the draft in practice previously — and fine-tune the car once they can make adjustments for it to handle better in traffic.
If nothing else, Bowman’s pole provide additional exposure for his sponsors, marked the fourth straight year Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500 pole and gave the organization something to rally around after a disappointing season that featured only four wins — the fewest for Hendrick since 2000.
3. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. GAINED NOTICE IN HIS RACE
It was as if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced with a billboard-sized, neon-colored “Look at Me!” sign during his qualifying race Thursday night.
But he wasn’t trying to gain the attention of fans but fellow competitors.
In the first qualifying race, Stenhouse repeatedly dived to the bottom lane and tried to make moves.
“I was just kind of tired of riding around on the outside,’’ Stenhouse said.
But his actions also did more, showing the field, particularly those that weren’t in his race, how well his car handled and the speed it had. It was a chance to remind drivers that his car would be a good one to work with in the Daytona 500.
Ford has won the past seven restrictor-plate races and has won two of the three events in Speedweeks with Brad Keselowski winning the Clash and Ryan Blaney winning his qualifying race Thursday.
4. STILL GOING
Richard Petty is 80 years old and still continues to be a part of the sport when he easily could enjoy a more casual life of retirement.
So why does he keep going?
“I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old,’’ Petty said. “It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.’’
5. THE FINAL WORD
Clint Bowyer offered this at Media Day earlier this week when told by a reporter that he looked leaner and asked how he had gotten that way.
“I just quit eating,’’ Bowyer said. “That is what you have to do when you get fat. Quit eating and quit drinking. Be miserable, and hire a trainer that is mean as hell.”